Ignore Ohio: Pot Legalization Is Inevitable

Legal weed may not be a reality in Ohio just yet, but the national prospects for legalization are bright

As many as 11 states could vote on legalizing recreational marijuana in 2016. Credit: David Walter Banks for The Washington Post via Getty Images

A well-funded initiative to legalize medical and recreational marijuana in Ohio lost 64 percent to 36 percent Tuesday, but legalization's national prospects are much brighter than this trouncing implies.

In polls, more than 80 percent of voters in Ohio favor medical marijuana, and a small majority want to see it legalized for all adults. These numbers are roughly in line with national sentiment.

Tuesday's lopsided vote reflects disgust with how the Ohio market would have been structured. Ten companies each donated $2 million to support the legalization campaign, known as Issue 3, and if it had passed the ten groups would have essentially been granted exclusive and indefinite permission to grow commercial marijuana in the state, a business estimated at $1 billion annually.

The pay-to-play arrangement was so off-putting that national pro-legalization groups like the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project declined to endorse it, despite the real and symbolic value of legal pot in the big Midwestern bellweather state. "The 19th-century robber barons couldn't have dreamed up a more perfect plan," the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized.

Unless the raft of states that could go green next year have similarly ill-conceived plans, the Ohio vote was likely an anomaly. Legalization advocates also prefer elections in presidential election years, when more young people bother to vote.

Views on legalization do not split neatly along party lines. The most pro-pot presidential candidates are Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Bernie Sanders. Of the candidates, the one who has been loudest in his opposition is Chris Christie, New Jersey's Republican governor, a longshot to win the nomination.

"If you're getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it," Christie said in July. "As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws." (Though four states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use, and 23 more allow some form of medical marijuana, the federal government's official position is that marijuana is illegal and has no valid medical uses.) In an appearance on Face the Nation, John Dickerson suggested to Christie that a hardline stance on legalization isn't smart politics. How, Dickerson asked, are you going to win in Colorado?

"I think there's probably a lot of people in Colorado who are not too thrilled with what is going on there right now," Christie said. "And you know the way you win any state? You go out and you tell people the truth and you lay out your ideas, and you either win or you lose."

In fact, an April poll found that 62 percent of Colorado voters support legalization, 7 percent more than voted for it in 2012. And since only 18 percent of Coloradans said they had used marijuana since legalization, the experiment appears to enjoy considerable, though not quite majority, support among non-users as well.

Last year legal marijuana grossed $2.7 billion. Nationally, that's not much, but the political dynamics at work will make it difficult to uproot. In Colorado, the industry directly employs thousands of people, and last year generated tens of millions in taxes. Enforcing federal marijuana laws would put people out of work and likely cut funding for school construction and other programs the taxes support. It would be an unusual way for a first-term president to suck up to a swing state. For a Republican, it would also violate the haloed principle of states' rights. (Among the frontrunners from both parties, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio is probably the strongest opponent of legalization, though he's not very vocal about it.)

Next year up to 11 states, including California, Arizona, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine, could vote on legalizing recreational weed, and medical marijuana could appear on ballots in deep-red states like Wyoming and Nebraska. A politician who relishes confrontation like Christie might enjoy telling Coloradans what's good for them, but when the next president takes office, states where more than 70 million Americans live may have already voted to legalize. Taking on that broad a constituency would almost certainly amount to a presidency defining unforced error, especially since, if history is any guide, it would do little or nothing to reduce marijuana use.

Legalization opponents argue that Big Weed could emerge as a powerful special interest like Big Tobacco or Big Gun that, at least according to opponents, cares more about profits than public interest. Another point they make is that easy access to marijuana and the potent concentrates now available in Colorado and other legal states, including California, will have detrimental consequences that we can't predict.

These are important points for voters to consider; they don't amount to a strong case to undermine the will of the voters in ten or more states. It also should be said that so far almost nothing that has happened in Colorado or other legal states has given traction to opponents. In July, Colorado's Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said, "I still look at it as fraught with risk, but some of the stuff that was so worrisome hasn't happened."

Many business and medical groups oppose legalization, but the issue doesn't appear galvanizing enough that they reach for their wallets. In 2012, the pro-legalization side in Colorado raised $2.2 million, outperforming the opposition 3 to 1, according to the National Institute on State Politics. Fundraising by the other campaigns has been even more lopsided. In Oregon supporters outpaced opponents 48 to 1, and in Washington state the figure was a hard-to-believe 314 to 1. (And some of the opponents' money in Washington came from medical marijuana businesses that found the law imperfect.)

The exception was a failed 2014 ballot measure to allow medical marijuana in Florida. In total, the pro camp raised $8.1 million to the opposition's $6.4 million. But of that $6.4 million, more than $5.5 million came from Sheldon Adelson, the conservative chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands, which owns the Venetian hotel. Even so, 58 percent of voters supported the measure; it needed 60 percent to pass.

"Pro marijuana folks have awoken a sleeping giant in Sheldon and [wife] Miriam Adelson," a Las Vegas Sands executive said last year. But there's reason to doubt Adelson's long-term commitment to the fight. He funded a study showing that medical marijuana could help reverse multiple sclerosis-like symptoms in mice. Plus, he has not factored in other high-profile marijuana votes. (Las Vegas Sands did not respond to a request to clarify Adelson's views.)

There's always the possibility another billionaire will step up and splash out, but if such a person exists, sitting out the Ohio vote was an inexplicable decision, even though the money turned out to be unnecessary.

Speaking before the results were announced, the anti-legalization activist Kevin Sabet acknowledged the fundraising gap and portrayed opponents as waging a David and Goliath battle against Big Pot. After the results came down Tuesday, he took a victory lap on Twitter. But once the dust settles, Ohio's oddball vote offers little for legalization opponents to smile about.